Girlhood (2015)

★★★★★

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Girlhood PosterDirector: Céline Sciamma

Release Date: October 22nd, 2014 (France); May 8th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Drama

Starring: Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Mariétou Touré

Any filmmakers looking to edge themselves into the complimentary critical limelight next year might want to consider serving up a compelling human drama tinged with humour and realism, named something-hood. The approach worked for Richard Linklater and it has worked again here, this time for Céline Sciamma whose film about a young woman’s life after education is arguably the best of 2015 thus far.

The titular girl is Marieme, or Vic, played with exquisite poise by Karidja Touré. Caring for her two younger sisters while her mother works evenings has hampered Marieme’s success in school, and she’s unable to repeat classes for a third year running. As such she strives to take control of her present, believing her future is too far beyond reach. A group of girls, probably slightly older, invite Marieme to join their gang and the conflicted teen accepts.

This is very simple cinema. From a technical standpoint there are no obvious tricks, no special effects, because there is no need. Girlhood is injected instead with dramatic heft and humanistic depth. It is better than the director’s first voyage into the challenges of female maturity, Water Lilies, which does relay some raw authenticity but is ultimately a touch one dimensional. Here, we journey through the many different and very real experiences of burgeoning adulthood.

For one, Girlhood is braver than Sciamma’s debut film, an attribute highlighted by Marieme’s decision to join a gang from the get-go. Instantly she finds herself surrounded by three girls — Lady, Adiatou and Fily — who aren’t the most affable people. We’re certainly not drawn to them; when the invitation to join is presented to Marieme, you get the urge to reach through the screen and point her in another direction. The group don’t necessarily go looking for trouble, but when it lands on their doorstep clearer heads often fail to prevail.

Yet through deft writing and affecting acting, we feel ourselves rooting for Lady et al. The girls combat racial profiling with intimidation, and then erupt in a fit of giggles. They are relatable and genuine. Sciamma, who also penned the screenplay, makes it known that these characters have a great deal of learning to do. And they do learn. We see it through the eyes of Marieme, mostly, who often has to bear the brunt of her abusive older brother. But the piece doesn’t dwell on negativities — laughter and joy are frequently employed, mostly when the four females are in each other’s company.

“You have to do what you want,” says Lady. Her suggestion is misguided — she’s talking in extremes, i.e. petty theft — but entirely true. Vexed by poor grades, Marieme struggles with the anxiety of unfulfilled potential. Touré captures this internal ache with such subtlety for much of the drama, before exploding in a fit of justifiable rage over a system that has clearly failed her: “Where’s the dream? You wanna tell me where your dreams are?” she bellows at her three friends in the second of two utterly masterful scenes.

The first is like something out of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, only with an added dose of reality. It sees the group collectively mime to Rihanna’s “Diamonds”, the screen tinted with an aqua fresh glare, in a hotel room rented for momentary respite from real life. The song lyrics reflect Marieme’s aspirations — those dreams she cares so much about — while also latching onto the more materialistic, idealistic psyche prominent in the minds of maturing teens (the quartet are all wearing delicate, expensive-looking dresses as they dance and sing about gemstones).

Inevitably, there are lots of peaks and troughs — from our characters squabbling affectionately and giggling the day away, to painful rejection at home. A scene where Marieme’s brother returns to their apartment in a fit of rage as she chats happily to her younger sister is incredibly well acted, Touré’s instinctive reaction almost as good as it gets from an actor (especially one in her first film). The piece touches on gender politics but never gets weighed down by it because, most of the time, to the girls their gender isn’t an issue. Other themes that arise include the paranoia of growing up, where everything feels like a competition and everybody a competitor, embodied by pre-arranged fights between gang members.

Though exceptional throughout, Girlhood arguably loses some vitality during the final act, but you get the sense that this decrease in energy is applied for a reason — it is Marieme’s worst half hour on screen, after all. The film is at its best when catching up with the four girls. Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Mariétou Touré are each individually effective but their collective effort bulges with vigour. A game of minigolf game perfectly illustrates their infectious chemistry.

Cinematographer Crystel Fournier makes use of light and darkness, blue tints, and a rich colour palette to make the film reverberate with life despite the gravelly surroundings. Blunt gang verbiage such as “iced” and “wasted” is littered throughout, a classically un-French touch that serves to keep the gritty, urban atmosphere afloat. Electronic pulses in between scenes make up a soundtrack bearing that same psychedelic nighttime vibe as Drive.

French cinema is a go-to destination for those after simplistic dramas about people and life (Blue is the Warmest Colour similarly lit up the big screen last year). Girlhood is another that fits that mould. In a way, it is very unlike Boyhood — the perspective taken on growing up is rougher in this instance — but the two films would make a wonderful double-bill, equal in overarching message and, just about, in quality.

Girlhood - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Pyramide Distribution

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

★★★★

The Place Beyond the Pines PosterDirector: Derek Cianfrance

Release Date: April 12th, 2013 (UK); April 19th, 2013 (US)

Genre: Crime; Drama

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes

The film that almost instantly springs to mind when watching The Place Beyond the Pines is Drive. Ryan Gosling stars in both, and in both he plays an outsider, a semi-vagrant. The Driver is a suave customer on the surface; he steers people away from danger in his glossy 1973 Malibu. Luke Glanton, on the other hand, trundles towards peril atop a motorcycle, common sense not in tow. For him it’s either a spherical cage of imminent perpetual risk or a bank robbery. Unlike Drive, Derek Cianfrance’s ambitious picture widens its berth to include a host of other characters. The result is an end product that is nowhere near as chiselled as the 2011 indie, at times detrimentally so, but one that should absolutely be applauded for its scope.

Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) is a stunt motorcyclist who travels from state fair to state fair earning a wage. Upon rekindling his relationship with a previous beau, Romina (Eva Mendes), the marauder ventures into a life of crime. That’s where he encounters Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a police officer whose moral head space is struggling under the weight of a corrupt department.

Primarily, this is the story of two people and the incessant reverberations of their actions. We meet Luke from the off, and follow him as he strolls into a bowl of hell. His job, as a stunt motorcyclist, perfectly embodies his unconventional lifestyle. The quiet, edgy nomad is someone for hire and when we first meet Luke his already dirty attire fields smatterings of blood. Instantly we feel detached, yet the revelation that he has a son enshrouds our lead with some semblance of humanity. A church scene that pits a worn out Luke as a self-realised squanderer is powerful. The constant circle of danger that flares throughout the film — the cage, his annually reloading lifestyle — succumbs to a strive for rehabilitation.

Director Derek Cianfrance then violently cuts from intense, loud robberies to sweet family days out. It works. The desperation in Luke becomes apparent; here is a character whom we’re not necessarily encouraged to get behind, nor is he somebody tarred with pitch black strokes. His criminal exploits are stark but they’re not isolated, a notion that vividly rears during a home altercation. As he, Romina — Eva Mendes is an amiable foil for Gosling, but her character suffers from a lack of clear definition — and their child are having a family photo taken, Luke relays his instructions to the taker: “Just capture the mood… the bike’s part of the family.” It is one of his few moments of solemn happiness.

On the surface, Avery Cross is different animal. He is a do-gooder, a fresh faced police officer. Avery spends his days protecting people from the likes of Luke Glanton. However, the reverberations of an incident leave him shaken, more or less infecting Avery with the same ceaseless moral dilemma prominent in the mind of his criminal counterpart. Work also becomes his escape, and his workplace is one wrought with wrongfulness too. (“But that’s the job” is a phrase of resignation constantly thrown around). This is where the film runs into its first problem. Avery is part of a crooked police department led by the viciously enrapturing Ray Liotta, but we don’t really believe it. Is the whole division corrupt? The virtuous cop’s aversion to corruption paints him with a gloss of goodness but we’re left to ponder why he is the only impartial officer.

This is the first in a chain of coincidence that ends with a major bang, though by then we’re willing to forgive. Whereas the corruption layer is a similarly fortuitous addition installed by Cianfrance and co-writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, it is one that rings less true, less authentic than the rest. In a sense, the director’s ambition suffers a tad as it becomes warped by sheer scope, but it shouldn’t be shot down as a result. Somewhere approaching the midpoint, the director unleashes quite the narrative swerve. The sequence is unexpected but ultimately rewarded because it endeavours to further the story, adding depth in the process. Regardless, the move signals the inception of a stunningly constructed piece of cinema.

Ryan Gosling’s work as Luke might be his best to date. The star manages to balance a controlled ferocity originating from struggle and toil, with a slice of unorthodox compassion. The Place Beyond the Pines does occasionally resemble Drive — a film whose slickness helped to paper over any cracks, a luxury not afforded here — but it is more rugged, and by proxy so is Gosling’s portrayal of Luke. As Avery, Bradley Cooper contributes with equal effort. It is true that his character follows a more recognisable and perhaps, therefore, more relatable path, but Cooper ensures there’s nothing generic about the police officer; in fact the further along we go, the meatier his role gets. Dane DeHaan’s performance is another worth singling out for praise, his stock on a seemingly unending rise.

Other factors are complimentary too. For instance, we get the raspy echoes of Bruce Springsteen rather than the melancholic waves of Kavinsky. At these points the outing hints at Scoot Cooper’s Out of the Furnace, a sentiment that gains more weight in tandem with Sean Bobbitt’s crackling cinematography. The camera stalks characters, firmly placing us amongst the people on display and invoking another degree of personableness. It’s guerrilla filmmaking finely executed.

Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to his uncompromising hit Blue Valentine retains the same empathetic tendencies as said flick, but ambitiously rolls them out over a vaster blanket. The story presents two sides of the same coin, both engaging and effective. There are dips conjured by happenstance, but nothing catastrophic. Rather, we’re attracted to Cianfrance’s portrait of life, work, consequence and connection, and it’s a well-founded attraction.

The Place Beyond the Pines - Gosling

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Focus Features

Only God Forgives (2013)

Only God Forgives PosterDirector: Nicolas Winding Refn

Release Date: July 19th, 2013 (US limited); August 2nd, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Crime; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas

When Gareth Evans’ The Raid hit cinemas a few years ago, the film brought with it an urgent sense of bludgeoning violence and hard-hitting combat. Unflinching and at times eye-scrunching, The Raid was also heralded as a bloody masterstroke. The fights were astoundingly well choreographed and, though it wasn’t the most prominent element, the story meant something. Rightly, Evans’ film felt the accommodating brunt of financial and critical adulation, ushering forth a sequel.

Only God Forgives is the antithesis of all things great about The Raid. It fails to yield any semblance of narrative, instead opting to parade a bunch of hateful characters throughout a maze of disorientating sequences. And it is brutal, gratuitously so. The unsubstantiated violence is the worst part.

Julian (Ryan Gosling) runs a Muay Thai club in Bangkok, but uses it as a veil to cover his successful drug smuggling business. After his brother is savagely murdered, Julian finds himself caught up in a storm of hate and vengeance. His spiteful mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), having made the trip to Thailand on the back of her son’s death, orders Julian to seek out his brother’s killer and attain revenge, a demand the American expatriate isn’t too overjoyed about.

Unlike in his previous disparately blood-fuelled outings Valhalla Rising and Drive, director Nicolas Winding Refn follows a half-fulfilled mantra here; one that pits grisly style over any form of substance other than the red stuff. The chain of grotesqueness begins almost before the opening credits, as we see murder compensate for more murder. Whereas the likes of both Valhalla Rising and Drive relayed a method to their differing levels of violent outburst — a curious soul and a pulsating beat, respectively — Only God Forgives squanders any opportunity to inject a sense of purpose. Essentially, it is violence for the sake of violence. There is no prevailing message. At one point Kristin Scott Thomas’ character despicably murmurs, “I’m sure he had his reasons,” when she catches wind of a particularly awful revelation. I’m sure Refn has his reasons too, but they are few and far between here.

When the film is not painfully boring it is an uncomfortable watch for all the wrong reasons — certainly, it’s not distressing in an adrenaline-driven way. This is partially due to the uncompromising and baseless brutalities on show, but it is also down to the palette of characters present before us. Either we hate them — and we hate most of them — or they are treated woefully. The females either represent a gaping hole searing through the heart of humanity (in the case of Crystal), or they’re token prostitutes (in the case of everyone else). Refn is painting just one picture that seeks to represent just one slice of humankind, which is fine. But must that picture really be as degrading to women as this is?

The guys aren’t let off lightly either. Ryan Gosling plays Julian, perhaps the least reprehensible of the lot. He has something of a moral backbone, one that stops short of unjust killing. (We’re into that territory, where murder must be separated into unjust and “ach, well maybe he deserved it”). Instead Julian funds his tumultuous conscience by running a drug smuggling operation and, more or less, employing a woman to be his puppet. The character stuffiness does absolutely nothing for Gosling. He’s trapped in a body too similar to the driver in Drive: emotionless, straight-backed but this time without that unorthodox charisma. Despite portraying genuine evil Kristin Scott Thomas is at least afforded the ability to be the only fluid person stuck among a meandering rabble of perceived luminaries. Crystal is a horrible person but she does move in a three-dimensional manner. The rest could pass for robots.

Refn’s customary art house injection arrives by way of the film’s visual appeal. Only God Forgives tries to manifest as a nifty, slick-looking film and cinematographer Larry Smith actually performs commendably. It does look good. Vogue photo shoots also look good, which is exactly what this is — a 90-minute photo op with a Halloween theme set in Thailand. The camera constantly looms around with precision, latching onto folk who are often standing as if giving prior notice; poised, posing and ready for their cover shot. Superficiality reigns supreme, a notion backed up the incessant air of boredom disguised as arty silence.

Aside from the early gore fest, the picture’s opening thirty minutes are bereft of any intrigue, subsequently setting the desolate tone moving forward. Ryan Gosling stares blankly into space. Characters walk so slowly. The violence might be gratuitous, but this carry on is borderline self-indulgent. Even the ambient music — an element Refn often gets spot on — is a little underwhelming. It certainly doesn’t make staring at wallpaper any more interesting. (Though staring at wallpaper might be more interesting than Only God Forgives.)

Nicolas Winding Refn tries to combine the successful strands of two previous outings — Valhalla Rising’s disconcerting climate and Drive’s brute force — yet ends up with the worst possible result. If we are taking this outing as a primary source, attributing Refn with a bleak view of humankind is probably fair. We’re all unmerciful maniacs.

Apparently only God forgives. Well hopefully God won’t see this, else we’ll be living in a world without forgiveness.

Only God Forgives - Kristin Scott Thomas

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Radius-TWC, Lionsgate